Most of us want the entrance to our homes to let visitors know we're glad to see them. But how do we achieve that? One way is by paying close attention to the design of the front stoop.
The word stoop refers to the steps and landing before an entry door. Stoops came to America by way of New Amsterdam's Dutch settlers, who insisted on building row houses that pressed against each other, because that was what they were used to back home. The iconic city stoop has over the past centuries spawned country and suburban imitators, from stone slab thresholds to wide, gracious landings that feel more like front porches. No matter what the design, all stoops have one thing in common: they make the first impression.
A stoop sets the stage for a home's interior, and also helps keep out rain, dirt and pests. Whether it's wide or narrow, tall or low, the design should complement the style of your home. And the stoop should feel welcoming. I've learned a lot about that from Ivy, my Australian sheep dog who's getting on in years. The front stoop at my present rental has steep stairs, and Ivy much prefers the back stairs. So that's what we use, of course.
Wondering where to start? Here's everything you need to know about designing a front stoop:
Above: Before O'Neill Rose Architects restored this 19th-century townhouse in New York City, the front stoop had been removed. They built a new one to connect the parlor floor to the street. Photograph by Michael Moran.
What is the history of the front stoop?
American stoops were first built in New Amsterdam (now New York City) and the Hudson River Valley. The word comes from the Dutch stoep, and buildings in New Amsterdam were based on Dutch architecture: tall, narrow, and close together. New Amsterdam had no alleyways to make buildings accessible from the rear, so separate staircases were built for the servants' quarters and kitchens, below street level. The owner's living quarters started a half story above—conveniently removed from the horse manure typically scattered about the street.
As houses sprang up in New York and in other cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, the streets became lined with ordered rows of urban stoops. These created a common space for neighbors to trade gossip, play games, and keep an eye on what the kids next door were up to. The style soon spread to small towns and the rest of the country.
Above: A classic Brooklyn brownstone stoop. Photograph by Erin Boyle.
How do you design a stoop?
If you're starting from scratch, an architect's advice can be invaluable. The style of your house will impact your decisions, as will the character of the neighborhood. If you live in a historic building, you'll want a stoop that's consistent in design with the original structure. For example, wooden steps and landings wouldn't fit with a stucco house, but painted wood may be just right for a wood-sided Victorian.
The best choice for a stoop's surface material is often a hardscape material that also appears elsewhere outside your home. If you have a limestone, bluestone, or concrete patio out back, for example, you might want to repeat the same material in front. Even though the two areas are far apart, using the same material creates a feeling of cohesion. For the front steps of my new house, we chose 6-inch-thick bluestone slabs that match the bluestone patio in back. (They were pretty expensive at $400 a slab, but luckily we only needed two.)
Depending on site conditions, you'll want the landing and steps to be wider than your door by at least six inches on both sides. Twelve inches on both sides seems to be a good rule of thumb, since you want the landing to have room for several people to stand comfortably.
Above: The front stoop of a Park Slope townhouse restored by Drew Lang of Lang Architecture.
What materials are good for a front stoop?
Brick, stone, wood, and concrete are the most common choices for stoops. Here are some things to consider for each type of material:
- Wood: The best choices are ipe (also called Brazilian walnut), redwood, or Alaskan yellow cedar. Ipe is excellent, because it's long-lasting and rot-resistant, but it does not take paint. If you're using painted wood, scatter some sand called Skid-Tex onto the wet paint, then paint over it; that makes the surface less slippery when wet. Ground walnut shells do the same thing; both are available at the paint store. Be aware that spreading salt to prevent people from slipping on snow and ice will do damage to wood and masonry.
- Stone: Bluestone, limestone, granite, and slate are good stoop materials, though they're pricier than brick, wood, or concrete.
- Concrete or brick: Both are economical and-long lasting.
Tip: Make sure your contractor compacts the area well before installing a heavy new stoop to prevent it from settling and pulling away from the house.
Above: At this house in Philadelphia's Powelton neighborhood, the stoop is bordered by an elevated garden. Photograph courtesy of Jamie Montgomery.
When designing stairs, what dimensions work best for risers and treads?
Stair design can be a mathematical puzzle. You have to take into account the area available for the staircase, and the change in elevation between the start and end point. And then there's the building code, which stipulates that exterior stairs must be of uniform height and depth (to avoid tripping) and that each tread (that's the horizontal part) may be no less than 4 inches deep. While the most common height for the riser (the vertical part) is 7 inches, I've found the ideal to be 6 inches. (I know this because the stairs my dog Ivy doesn't like are 7 inches, and the ones she prefers are 6.)
Above: Graphic by Dalilah Arja.
As far as tread is concerned, the minimum depth for front steps is 11 inches. The maximum is 18 inches, which obviously provides more room for people to sit. Usually, the deeper the treads, the lower the risers (it's a question of walking cadence); for a more gradual incline, you'll need plenty of space.
A word about railings:
If you're wondering whether you need a railing, the answer is yes—if you have more than three steps or if the top of the landing is 30 inches higher than the finished grade. But I recommend a railing even if there are only two steps. The front stairs at my former house, which was more than a century old, had an ineffective low wall in place of a railing. I found myself constantly warning visitors, especially the elderly, to be careful. Halloween was especially nerve-wracking.
- Best if wider than the door.
- Ideal riser height is 6 inches, ideal tread depth is 12 inches or more.
- Stone or concrete are lowest-maintenance materials.